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For the past 15 years, Lancaster University has performed “The Vagina Monologues”. Every year, on and around Valentine’s Day, people across the world perform the Vagina Monologues as part of V-Day, an international activist movement started by Eve Ensler, to stop violence against women and girls, and to support One Billion Rising, a mass global action against violence, the “billion” referring to the UN statistic that one in three women, or about one billion women on the planet, will be raped or beaten in their lifetime. Every year, the cast of the production chooses a local charity to raise money for, and this year LetGo Domestic Violence Services, a local organization that supports people of all genders, sexualities, and life stages to escape domestic violence.
While the title itself may be a little off putting, we promise there are no visible vaginas in the show, men are absolutely allowed to come to the performance, and uncomfortable laughter is fine, you probably won’t be the only one. The Lancaster show is performed by self-defining women and non-binary people, and discusses what it’s like to be a woman, and what it means to have a vagina. The topics range from sex, love, birth and masturbation to harrowing issues of rape and female genital mutilation. It shows the women in the monologues at their best and at their worst, and it’s inspiring, heartfelt, and often very, very funny!
The show took place in the Great Hall this year, a bigger space than usual. However, both nights had a high turnout, with the cast having to set up more chairs both nights as the audience filtered in for the 6:00pm showtime. As audience members entered the hall, they were welcome to buy cake, labia lollipops, #VaginaRevolution wristbands, badges, and vegan vagina shaped soaps. The cast makes and donates the items sold, as the profits go to fundraising. The tickets, £5 for students and £10 for non-students, also go to the charity. The bar in the great hall also had a special cocktail on for the night whose profits were also donated, “The Matriarchy”, a play on the classic cosmopolitan.
The show opened with Eve’s first monologue “We Were Worried About Vaginas” performed by head director, Bethan Archer, Anna Lee and Katie Capstick. The monologue explains to the audience why the monologues were written, and ends with the introduction of quite a few new names for vaginas. “ I couldn’t get over ‘the underpass in lancaster’ one!” audience member Bianca Thompson explained.
Different cast members took the stage, stood or moved about it, laid down and spread their legs or had some fun with audience participation – Beth Littlewood brought the fantastic ‘Reclaiming Cunt’ to life in a performance that ended with the entire cast and audience chanting ‘cunt’ to reclaim the word from its derogatory associations, which I imagine might have perturbed anyone walking through building, or at the volume it reached, maybe even outside it. While the show has its funny moments, it’s not without thought provoking and and often painful ones as well.
The monologues are ordered each year by V-Day, the overarching organization. The monologues alternate between heart-wrenching and hilarious. The stories ranged from comic anecdotes about women getting their first period, to “They Beat the Girl out of my Boy” about the experiences of transgender women. The second half of the show starts out with a rant about tampons, pelvic exams, and thong underwear, but is followed by the harrowing account of a woman brutally and repeatedly gang raped by soldiers during the Bosnian war. The juxtaposition of such contrastive monologues made them especially poignant.
The last monologue of the show was “My Revolution Begin in the Body” in which each cast member had a line, standing up one by one, until the last line was said in unison by the whole cast. The last monologue is followed by a unique Lancaster tradition, a beautifully powerful song written by Lancaster student Bethany Jones, featuring solos from some incredible musically talented members of the cast.
As part of Lancaster Art’s Festival of Questions, Saturday night’s show was followed by a panel discussing “Is the Vagina Monologues relevant today?”. As this year was the 20th anniversary of the play, director Bethan Archer, and a few cast members were joined by Dr. Celia Roberts, and Prof Geraldine Harris. The Vagina Monologues is often critiqued for being exclusionary, outdated, and attempting to speak for others. The critiques are valid, and cast members Georgia Lomax-Thorpe and Angie Normandale pushed for change. Worried that in an attempt to address every issue, Prof. Harris reminded the cast and audience to not ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’, as at the heart of the performance is a movement to end violence. While the show is not perfect, it is incredibly unique in its cause, the awareness it brings, and the community it builds.
“As well as the panel at the Vagina Monolancs there have been many discussions for the past year within the feminist and LGBTQ+ student network about the problematic aspects of the play, with suggestions of either transforming it or replacing it with new devised and found material by our feminist community. Some were surprised to find members of the cast and wider community so critical of the play, but to me, it is a sign of the progression, strength, and sensitivity to new intersectionalities of the younger generation of feminists here in Lancaster. This is about changing our language, about real representation, and about transforming traditions.” Lomax-Thorpe explained.
While it’s unsure if next year’s show will be another performance of the traditional Vagina Monologues, or a cast written version with the goal to include more voices, it’s no question that this is not a tradition that is over.